The Habersham County Commission, with the help of the Habersham County Sheriff’s Office (HCSO), held its first town hall meeting to discuss the jail bond referendum on the upcoming Nov. 5 ballot. The discussion was held at the Cornelia Community House Monday night and lasted two hours with nearly an hour dedicated to questions and comments from the public.
Commission Chairman Stacy Hall reiterated for the audience that the two primary concerns that call for this referendum are solutions to the “significant” overcrowding, and 70 non-compliance issues at the federal and state levels experienced at the jail.
“We’re not trying to build a jail so we’re not housing out inmates and saving $500,000 a year,” said Sheriff Joey Terrell. “That’s not the point of this. It’s one of the issues we’re dealing with, but the main point of this is the 70 state and federal regulations, and court rulings (U.S. Supreme Court) that we are not abiding by. That is the main thing.”
Terrell said the average daily population fluctuates from 180 up to 240 on the weekends. The population is expected to increase at least 24% every 20 years.
The jail currently has a bed count of about 160, which was raised from its original count of 130.
In regard to the 70 state and federal non-compliance issues, the following are only a few that Terrell mentioned:
• They are not Americans with Disabilities Act compliant;
• No classification of inmates. Currently, minimum, medium- and maximum-security inmates could all be in the same block of the jail. Terrell clarified proper classification in the new prison is part of the need for over 300 beds. Two maximum-security inmates in a room of 10 beds leaves eight beds unavailable;
• Privacy. An example is male inmates having to disrobe in front of multiple people, including female officers to shower. Terrell said one man filed a complaint in superior court;
• In terms of infrastructure, the jail has a 4-inch sewer main line and inmates flush bedsheets to cause flooding.
EFFORTS IN HOUSING OUT INMATES
Terrell told the audience it costs the HCSO about $50 per inmate to run the jail.
In 30 years, inmate population is expected to be well over 300, costing Habersham County $45 to $60/day per inmate housed out in another county, he said.
Currently, it appears that all neighboring county jails are full except for White County, which only has room for females, and Lumpkin County. Terrell said transferring inmates for that particular drive is quite dangerous at night.
Tim Stamey, who is running for county commissioner, asked about the feasibility of building a new jail on a county line and splitting the costs with a neighboring county. Terrell said the possibility of a tri-county jail was discussed, but the first issue he mentioned was deciding who would run it, and each county would share the liability and operations of the jail.
And in terms of other counties in need, Terrell specifically addressed every neighboring county have recently or are going to be expanding their jails.
WHY NOT SPLOST?
Concerned voices said this structure should be on Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax (SPLOST) and asked why it can’t be. Hall thoroughly explained the reasoning for The Northeast Georgian.
Hall said the state legislature decides how often the county can hold a SPLOST. “Counties are not allowed to have more than one SPLOST at a time,” Hall said. “Habersham currently also has a LOST (Local Option Sales Tax) and E (Education)-SPLOST that both go to school system.”
“I did not say the new jail would be on next SPLOST if [the referendum] doesn’t pass. In fact, I can say it will not be due to other financial pressures, including roads and bridges. ... My personal wish is that we try to carve out a portion of funds from any future SPLOST to help with debt service of a jail bond (if approved by voters). It most likely won’t be enough to cover all the debt service alone, but I’d like to try to cover as much as possible. Again, this is just my personal desire. The goal is always to try to meet the needs of the public as efficient as possible.”
CONCERNS AND MOVING FORWARD
The audience seemed to agree a new jail is needed. However, previous decisions such as properties that were sold at a loss, has caused their distrust in this investment. The $31.7 million cost for the new jail on the average home is $71 or $5.92 per month.
“The major point is this: this is your decision to make,” said Commissioner Natalie Crawford. “We’re here to give you the information, we’re here to present you with the numbers that have been worn out through research. We’re not saying, ‘This is what we’re doing,’ We’re saying, ‘Here are the numbers.’”